Digital Naturalism Open Design Challenges

This is a list of current design challenges that are key to my work in Digital Naturalism. I am “opening” them up to others to try to find unique and interesting solutions to these fascinating problems. These challenges can range from very specific creations (e.g. a $10 small insect traffic sensor) to more general inspirational projects (e.g. Wearable Maker Studios). It’s a low-fi way of getting lots of people to think about these challenges and crowd-source collaborative work on them. Digital Naturalism is a very big area of exploration, and if we want to get anywhere, we will have to work together!

Me being lonely with weird electronics in a swamp, come help me out by working on these challenges!

The goal of sharing these challenges is this:

  1. Check them out!
  2. Find one you like.
  3. Let me know if you want to work on it!
  4. I will try to support your work on it.
  5. We make awesome discoveries and share them with the world!


In the future, I aim to try to directly support these endeavors. For example, I would love to post monetary bounties for not only completing and sharing the challenges, but even for starting the challenges. For example, I would love to propose something like “If you write me a quick proposal accepting Challenge X, and it sounds good, I will give you $500 startup funds, and if you complete the challenge, you will win the bounty of $3000.” Unfortunately, right now I don’t have the kinds of time or money resources to run something like that, but stay tuned! Maybe that will change in the near future!

For right now, I am offering my tips and experience and other guidance I can offer as a designer, academic, and fun adventure guy. If you are local to where I am working, I can try to help support your work with equipment, tools, and sensors too!

At first I will offer these challenges to students at my University, and those students who accept the challenges will have my first priority. If you are anyone else though, don’t let that discourage you! If you see something interesting you want to work on, just let me know, and I will try to help as best as I can!

Open Sharing

Like good scientists, everything we create, we will share freely and openly with everyone! Some people are academics or professionals and might also want to share these resulting creations in more closed-source venues like non-open-access journals. That’s also fine! we will just share our information first in less “official” “pre-prints” of our publications, or in openly documented designs and work posted on like github for instance. Any tech we create will be Open Source Hardware and Software. You can still try to commercialize it if you want! Be like sparkfun, they make a killing off selling all open-source stuff!


If a project is marked OPEN, it’s up for grabs! email me at, to become the official claimant. If it’s marked CLAIMED (2017-05-2017-08), it means I am already working with a dedicated person on this for the specific times listed.  Of course nobody is stopping you from working on any of these, and in fact we encourage everyone to work on these difficult challenges. We might just be to previously occupied to offer much support, but we definitely want to hear about your work!


Look over these challenges. They range from highly-technical electronic designs to artistic expressions and literature research. Find something that piques your interest and dive into it. If you are excited about it, and want to get going on it, contact me and I can help you get on your way!


“Biocrafting” is about creating, customized, handmade tools for field biologists.


360 VR Camera Traps

  • Status: OPEN
  • Description:

Camera traps are a super useful tool for field biologists and conservationists! They let us record animals without the presence of humans being in the way! You have probably seen their use on shows like Planet Earth to capture gorgeous footage of super rare leopards and such! They are also invaluable for monitoring less rare species in many different other climates though too! (And also as secret traps to catch poachers!). They have some restrictions like narrow field of views, suffer “placement bias,” and they are generally quite expensive and bulky.

Full 360-degree camera traps can open up lots of new avenues of exploration for scientists and nature lovers! Capturing the full photosphere around the camera can help remove “placement bias,” and let the camera venture to places other cameras couldn’t go (like dangling up in the canopy! or floating free in the ocean).


  • Target: Help design, test, and document the creation and use of these cameras for monitoring wild animals.
  • Fields: Fieldwork, Sensors, Cameras, Computer Science,
  • Additional Information:

This instructable shows how to build a very basic 360 camera trap

You can also watch this video as a good introduction to this concept:


 Small Insect Traffic Monitor – (Micro Camera Trap)

  • Status: OPEN
  • Description: Many sensors exist for animals in the laboratory or also large wild animals. Most of the animals in the world, however, are both wild and tiny! I have been working many years on coming up with a cheap, modular sensor that can easily detect the presence or absence of a small animal (like an ant) on an arbitrary surface in the forest (like a vine, or tree bark, or the ground). This has proven difficult. Scientists often have to just film a small section of the forest, and record video footage which has to be analyzed later. This prevents them from monitoring many areas of the forest simultaneously, and is also quite labor intensive. Instead I am targeting a $10 and under sensor that we could place all over a tree for instance, and simultaneously monitor insect activity over a large area in real-time. Adding to the difficulty, the sensor should not interfere with the animals habitat too much. We have tried many different designs to varying degrees of success.

  • Target: You will design and test prototypes of a device that can detect an ant-sized insect on an arbitrary surface. An ideal first test of this prototype will be using these sensors to trigger small cameras that can capture these tiny animals in action.
  • Fields: Sensors, Computer Science, Design, Field testing
  • Additional Information:

This is an instructable which shows some examples of sensors that could work (but still not very sensitive) and importantly it shows many of the challenges to design for:


Check Michael Candy’s artificial pollinator


Wearable Studio Projects

Your environment heavily influences what you make. Working in an indoor, climate controlled lab or studio locks you off from much of the interesting inspirations and challenges found throughout the rest of the world. The makers of the future should be constantly exploring new, diverse locations, and their studios should be able to accompany them, anywhere. The Wearable studio research projects explore ways of breaking a person’s unique studio out of the confines of a human-centric locations, and let them create new things on the go, anywhere in the world.



 Rapid, Modular, Portable Worksurface

  • Status: OPEN
  • Description:  A key to working in the wild is finding a decent surface to work on. A worksurface has many qualities that can be hard to find in the wild: flat, stiff, clean, elevated, sturdy, resistance against the forces of the tools (heat, weight, pressure). It also needs to be lightweight, and for our purposes in hiking hacks we need them to be quite lightweight.  Below is a list of requirements for the types of worksurfaces we are building in this project.
  1. Lightweight
  2. Durable when out and durable when packed (not gonna get broken in my backpack)
  3. Compact – can go multiple in backpack easily such as flat packing or rolling up
  4. Rigid and sturdy – stuff can sit on it without wobbling or falling over, people can manipulate, cut, shape, and change things without disrupting the surface too much.
  5. Strong – can support a laptop and big rolls of solder
  6. Heatproof – won’t melt catch on fire if i am soldering on it for instance
  7. Weather proof (steel band might rust for instance).
  8. Modular / scalable – a single hiking hacker can use it themselves , or a group could gather around in a different configuration. This is important and what makes this design tricky.
  9. Standalone or mountable – can use it in places without trees or other uprights, or in places where you can make use of terrain features.
  10. Rapidly deployable- if it takes as long as to set up as Ikea furniture, I’ll never use it. If it’s like a tent , I’ll use it maybe once every day or two . What I want it something you almost don’t have to think about setting up , do you can toss it out on quick 10 minute breaks on the hiking trail.
  11. DIY – I or you or we can build this all by ourselves without too much cost. Like carbon fiber would be awesome but it s pricey and hard to work with. I try to steer away from too many exotic materials or tools.

  • Target: You will prototype, test, and iterate on lightweight worksurfaces that try to meet these criteria.
  • Fields: Industrial Design, Materials, Crafting
  • Additional information:

This page show many examples of portable worksurfaces we have tried out for inspiration.

Light, Modular, Portable Worksurfaces

See this video for an early example of a spring-loaded 10 second setup worksurface-


Wearable Studio Survey (Technology Studies Research)

  • Status: OPEN
  • Description: Research into the history and state of the art in wearable studios that others have created and used. For instance tool-vests worn by fishermen, or portable paint sets carried by early naturalists into the field.
  • Target: Dig into historical uses of wearable toolkits and gear from many fields. Examine contemporary designs in use by interaction designers and field biologists. Help write a paper documenting and sharing this research.
  • Fields: Science and Technology Studies, History, Research, Writing
  • Additional Information:

Hannah Perner-Wilson has already conducted some great research already and provides a nice overview of portable toolboxes and worksurfaces from ones that go on the backs of bicycles to the International Space Station

A Wearable Studio Practice


 Mobile Studio Survey (Technology Studies Research)

  • Status: OPEN
  • Description: Research into the history and state of the art in portable studios that others have created and used. For instance the art and tech laboratories on board Jacques Cousteau’s ship that would travel with him.
  • Target: Dig into historical uses of mobile workspaces and gear from many fields. Examine contemporary designs in use by interaction designers and field biologists. Help write a paper documenting and sharing this research.
  • Fields: Science and Technology Studies, History, Research, Writing
  • Additional Information:

See the BOAT Lab project for an example of a mobile floating makerspace we made with a community for an example of a contemporary Mobile Studio.


 Wearable Studio Designs (Specific Practices)

  • Status: OPEN
  • Description: This is a general call for the creation of more types of wearable studios. your proposed project can focus on wearable studios for a specific practice. Hannah Perner-Wilson and I have been looking loosely into designs for e-textile designers and field biologists, but there are plenty of other fields and more specific practices. What does the wearable studio look like for a CRISPR-using biohacker in the field? How about a wearable studio for someone studying Jacana birds in swamps? Can you modify a practitioner’s body to turn it into crafting resources? Choose a specific practice, and even specific body type, and design for this. These designs can range from utilitarian to stylized. They can be functional or futuristic prototypes.
  • Target: The design and testing / demonstration of an article of wearable studio gear. This means not just drawings, or renderings, but actual construction of real, wearable gear. Even if some aspects are futuristic (e.g. tiny jetpacks carry all of your tools in an orbit around your head), you need to create physical prototypes that demonstrate these concepts in a “design fiction” style.
  • Fields: Industrial Design, Crafting, Interaction Design
  • Additional Information:

Hannah Perner-Wilson has been making some excellent wearable studio creations. See this great overview of the ideas behind a studio you can wear and carry, its development over the years, and great examples of other people’s works.


 Wild Arms (Mobile Precision Manufacturing in Wild)

  • Status: OPEN
  • Description: I have several high-precision (relatively) lightweight, mobile robotic arms that can 3D print, Laser Engrave, Pick and Place, Computer Vision and take other kinds of commands and attachments.
  • Target: Your goal will be to test and document the use of these arms in naturalistic environments. What benefits could 3D printing directly into an environment have? Can you make an interactive drawing project with monkeys?
  • Fields: Robotics, Rapid Prototyping, Industrial Design, Crafting, Interaction Design
  • Additional Information: The arms come from Ufactory. The Models are Uarm Swift Pro made from 3 stepper motors.








Documentation Projects

What’s the point of making and exploring cool stuff if you are going to keep it all to yourself? These projects focus on dissemination of interesting ideas.

Design Documentaries

  • Status: Claimed! ( Tan Yi En Isabel and Bart Leon Van Son )
  • Description: This would be a project working a bit more closely with me. The goal is to make several short films (1-2 mins long), demonstrating the tasks of a particular field biologist. Participants will get to use or learn skills in: video shooting, video editing, lighting, macro shooting, drone flying, animation, and alternative camera techniques such as shooting timelapse, and 360 VR techniques.


  • Target: Observe and study a field biologist. Create a short audio-video documentary of their work and use of specific tools. The video will be polished, and refined with a target length of 1-2 minutes long.
  • Fields: Filmmaking, Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies.
  • Additional Information: Check out a couple of these short films to get a better idea what these design documentaries are like.

Example Design Documentaries with Field Biologists


Cybiotic Art

These are projects that build off Digital Naturalism’s concept of “Behavioral Immersion” where humans, creatures, and ecosystems are somehow connected to each other in a web of novel interactions, often using computers. For example making firefly costumes that let your body communicate with fireflies in the jungle.


 Wearable Ant Farm

  • Status: OPEN
  • Description: I want to connect human bodies intimately to the rhythms of a colony of ants. One potential way to do this is to wear your ant farm around. This project will explore designs for safely hosting a living colony of ants (including queen, brood, and workers).

"Arm-y" Ant Farm V1.0 - Stay in Touch With Your Colony

  • Target: Create a viable ant farm that you can wear for at least several hours. An additional goal will be to have the wearable farm outfitted with sensors that can tie the movements of the ants into sensations on the human (for instance the insects could pass through photo-gates that trigger small vibration motors on the users skin).
  • Fields: Art, Industrial Design, Fashion, Biology.
  • Additional information:

Check out this very rudimentary version of this concept:

Also check out great resources about ant farm making from Ants Canada: